By: Kim Farleigh
Sheep bells clanged with the sheep’s escaping hooves in an olive grove where hikers gripped ropes connected to trees, the track, slippery from hammering feet, plummeting towards turquoise over which refugees in rubber boats had come, fleeing war.
Rubber littered the rocky edge of that turquoise pathway from death that had sometimes led to death on those rocky shores.
Down below, Claudio distributed knives, the hikers cleaning the beaches of rubber, the rubber hissing like steam bursting from pipes when slashed along its seams, sweat stinging beach-cleaner eyes, rubber piles rising around the shore.
Maria collected life-vests straps and prime rubber to make backpacks.
“We can catch boats back today,” she said.
Boats were coming to collect the cut-up rubber. Hiking back to camp took an hour and a half.
“You okay?” Maria asked Laura.
Laura’s cheeks resembled flames.
“I just need to rest,” she said.
She sat in the shade of the cliff that overlooked the beach.
“Keep sipping water,” Maria said.
“I’ve got plenty,” Claudio said. “So don’t worry.”
“Me, too,” Liz said.
“Stay there,” Maria said.
Laura tried rising.
Claudio said: “Don’t move.”
“Believe me,” David said, “it could happen to anyone. Don’t move.”
Shame tightened Laura’s mouth.
“You’re courageous for getting here in the condition you’re in,” David said.
“Thanks, David,” she said, brushing his arm with her fingertips.
Refugees paid a thousand euros each to reach those slippery-rock shores, most refugees non-swimmers. One slip and under you go, death and misery with joy and relief on those rocky shores.
The ropes Liz removed from the iron rings on the boats’ bows were used to pull the vessels from the water. She bundled the cut-up rubber with those ropes and carried the bundles to the shore. This meant bending, crouching, and rising; then struggling over uneven granite with heavy loads.
“Jesus!” she gasped.
A back twinge knifed her as she turned to step on flatter surfaces to avoid falling on rocks that had cut and bruised the beach cleaners.
She leant back, grimacing.
“What’s up?” Maria asked.
“My back,” Liz said. “I twisted quickly, trying to stop falling.”
Her lips plastered her sky-facing teeth.
“Damn it!” she gasped.
David and Claudio, holding her arms, lowered her against the cliff’s base, Liz saying: “Friggin’ stupid!”
“Relax,” David said. “The boats are coming.”
A fishing boat, dragging a dinghy, was nearing, the boats owned by a local fisherman, David’s head becoming a live bust on a liquid mantelpiece. Everyone on board waved with the felicitous freedom that signals great adventures, horizon sunlight shattering into silver flints when striking water, the boats tiny under a dome of blue.
The beach cleaners waited to heave the rubber onto the boats, the fishing boat’s engine groaning.
Gemma waved, yelling: “Ahoy there.”
That engine groaned.
Gemma had lied to Maria about the local refugee camp’s administration not wanting a backpack-making project in the refugee camp. Projects increased Gemma’s responsibilities. She was the NGO’s liaison officer with the local refugee camp. Her religious mother bragged about funding the NGO on the NGO’s web site.
“Beautiful people, I love you all,” Gemma often said, when addressing volunteers about refugee-camp developments.
That produced silences like ice set to crack.
“I love you all, even though I haven’t spoken to you all. But you’re here, so you must all be beautiful.”
“She and her mother,” Maria had told Claudio, “are chasing reunification in heaven after undertaking earthly sacrifices.”
The sea’s glistening transparency reminded Maria of Gemma’s smile.
The fishing boat turned so the dinghy faced the shore, coloured pebbles under transparency: black, white, orange, green and brown, like different people, similar, with different shades, beauty with slipperiness.
Glove-wearing volunteers leapt from the fishing boat to pull the dinghy onto the beach’s granite. Rubber bundles dotted the shore. The contrast between white rock and rubber ebony reminded Maria of Gemma’s smile “that glimmered like the transparent sea above slipperiness.”
Seeing Liz against the cliff, Gemma clambered over the rocks to show concern, her hair immaculate; she never sweated.
Sheep croaked above. Maria whispered to Claudio: “Work-avoiding concern magnifies glory before the Lord.”
Claudio’s grin snuck behind a black glove. He and Maria were carrying rubber to the boats. The shins of a volunteer called Orlando displayed scabs from falls on the rocks, his dry, British sincerity highlighting Gemma’s syrupy brightness.
“What’s up?” Gemma asked Liz.
Gemma’s irises shivered with dramatic sensitivity.
“My back,” Liz replied. “A slight twinge.”
The “slight twinge” meant she would have to walk slowly back to camp.
“Can you walk okay?” Gemma asked.
“Yes,” Liz lied, avoiding self-indulgent elaboration.
Her suffering was miniscule. She could endure.
The volunteers filled the boats with rubber, Liz facing the sky, pines above muted witnesses to death.
Gemma offered Liz water.
“Now she’s offering water,” Maria whispered, “in a spiritual cleansing of our moral imperfections.”
“God’s work is endless,” Claudio whispered.
Gemma joined in as the beach cleaners collected the final pile. She grabbed the last bundle, knowing Maria was creating a photographic record of the beach cleaners’ work.
Claudio and Maria smiled at each other as Gemma climbed onto the rubber-laden dinghy, the final bundle for Gemma attaining talismanic powers, for it symbolised “sacrifice.”
“Maybe,” Claudio whispered, “we could make paradise on earth instead of worrying about fantasy places.”
Maria’s smile made Gemma pose for a photograph. Maria could have only been grinning to acknowledge eternal sacrifice.
“Let heathen infidels walk,” Orlando pronounced, the boats entering silvery-blue, beach cleaners left behind.
“Sinners,” Maria quipped, “face hike purgatory under helium hell for mocking omniscient sublimity.”
Friction’s first sign at the beach cleaners’ camp was Claudio’s face, his lips fused by disdain, his eyes holes of enmity.
A volunteer had had to wait hours in the camp before being taken to where that volunteer was overseeing refugees doing rock-climbing.
“The lazy bastard should have been doing beach cleaning,” Claudio growled.
Maria told the other volunteers: “They didn’t let us board, including Laura, who had heatstroke and Liz who had hurt her back. Too much weight for the boat’s engine, apparently. Nobody offered to give Laura and Liz their place on the boat. They stared in different directions as Gemma explained the weight problem. Her sorrowful look deserved an Oscar. Of course, she had to dash back here to attend a vital meeting in the refugee camp that could potentially transform every refugee’s life in Greece. Claudio would have torpedoed the boat had a sub been handy.”
Maria smiled like a flame made from translucent flesh.
“I photographed the loaded dinghy,” she continued, “to record our work. Gemma was on the rubber. She thought I wanted to photograph her. She raised her hands and smiled, peanut butter in one hand, banana in the other. Maybe exotic symbolism exists in raising prosaic elements heavenwards? Laura said: ‘The humanitarian who’s making suffering people walk back.’ Gemma asked me for the photo, probably to impress her mother. She’s done no beach cleaning and there she was receiving paparazzi recognition for her sacrifice amid Lesbos’s trying elements, that famous holiday spot, Turkey, philosophy’s birthplace, backing her like a tribute to her ethical purity. Or it because her mother funds the operation that she doesn’t have to work?”
Orlando and David laughed at what many described as cynicism, real cynicism clearer to them than ever before.